This is an edited extract from one of the long series of interviews I did with Steve Howe for The Steve Howe Guitar Collection. This comes from an interlude in the main business, where Steve was chatting about some of his favourite guitar players. I’ve plucked out here some of his comments on Albert Lee and Django Reinhardt.
TB: OK, next up on our shortlist is Albert Lee.
SH: Albert is in that unknown territory between country and rock. Now, I’m aware of the history of chicken-picking, from James Burton to Hank Garland and others. But I had a similar experience with Albert as I did with Wes Montgomery: he made a very clear impression on me early on. I was standing in the middle of Watford Town Hall, early 60s I suppose, to see Chris Farlowe, and on walked Albert Lee with him. And from the second he started playing, I thought christ, this guy really means business!
He wasn’t playing a Telecaster then, wasn’t playing country style – it was just before he developed all that – but he was playing r’n’b with Chris Farlowe. Chris had warned me beforehand that he had a new guitarist and I should watch out! What I heard was Albert playing a Les Paul Custom through a Fender Bassman amp, and it was penetrating my ears. I’d never heard anything like it: I’d never heard a Les Paul come to life like that. You can hear him to good effect with Chris on ‘What You Gonna Do?’.
So I’ve tried to follow his peculiar recording career since then, Emmylou Harris, The Everly Brothers, and so on – and he’s almost become the epitome of the top Telecaster country man. And what he’s got is this undeniable imagination, I don’t think anyone can hold this guy back, he has this kind of burning country guitar style. But it’s not really led to the kind of career I imagined he would have. When I saw him back then with Chris Farlowe, when I had very little understanding of the music business, I saw Albert playing a very prominent role in the future. And maybe because of his specialisation in country that closed that door a little … but he got something much closer to his heart. Albert was almost too good to be in groups. A group with Albert Lee was a formidable assault.
So he developed into this great sideman who makes his own albums. I suppose most guitarists are happy to dabble, as long as we can get our own music out. What happens after that is another issue. And not only is Albert a great, great guitarist, but he’s also brilliant on keyboards, plays beautiful piano om most of his guitar records – and his voice ain’t bad either. Why isn’t this guy right out there? What’s wrong with the world?
TB: How about Django Reinhardt? I know he’s another fave. And quite, er, different …
SH: If we talk about other great guitarists, there are always other people in their slipstream, almost, who follow on great traditions, and they are people I admire as well. But the originator is Django of that sheer magical gypsy guitar music. The first record I got of his was a ten-inch that carried most of the great ingredients, but it didn’t have ‘Nuages’, which I had to wait a few albums later for. Once I heard ‘Nuages’ I figured that was his masterpiece, and I arduously tried to collect as many versions of that as he’d recorded. Django wrote it and adopted it like his signature tune, something he was endlessly content to play and record. I think at least once in a lifetime a musician should write a good tune, and there’s always one that stands out above the others. ‘Nuages’ is a beautiful tune, and to play it and hear it is to have the feeling of Django.
My friend Marshall deserves a mention here, because he gave me two wonderful records, one of which was a Django record, In Paris, on which he plays ‘Nuages’ on electric guitar, so I think it must be one of his last recordings – he’s mostly thought of as playing those acoustic Selmer Maccaferri guitars. And it’s very much a solo piece with backing, no violin coming in, and it has the most amazing, smokey mood.
Django never made light of playing a note. So many of his notes were either trilled or hammered, pulled-on a bit, slid over the frets … really interesting. And some of it was sheer showing off! It was fun. He added humour all the time, tremendously loud diminished chords all of a sudden, and everyone would fly out of the mix at that point. He was an expert at being an extrovert, and I think that showed up in his music as well as his socks. A gypsy becoming famous, well … it’s like a pied piper story, a fairy tale. I think that’s why when you see pictures of him – this Dali-like figure – he looks full of pride and tremendous courage.
His music has that open-airness about it, and not just adrenalin but vitality. His missing fingers … it’s almost a miracle, because when you hear Django you can’t really imagine that it would be possible with fewer fingers than any other guitarist. It’s almost twice as fantastic with half as many fingers. It just does not sound like he only had two fingers! It sounds like it must be a myth, but it’s been well documented, and apparently it’s true. We know he had two fingers and two very badly burned fingers. It’s amazing. And you could almost say … would he have been as good with four fingers?